Header image for news printout

Commemoration of International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade

22 March 2013

Excellencies, distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen,

The United Nations has declared this day as the day of remembrance of victims of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade, and I welcome your participation in this commemoration.

As rightly acknowledged by the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, slavery and the slave trade — in particular the transatlantic slave trade — were appalling tragedies in the history of humanity. Not only because of their cruelty, but also in terms of their magnitude, their organized nature and especially their negation of the fundamental humanity of their victims.

The fight against slavery and the slave trade has been fundamentally instructive in the values we espouse, of human rights and fundamental freedoms of every human being. The lessons that we learned from it have been central to our continuing struggle for human dignity, and against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, wherever and whenever they occur.

Slavery has been universally accepted as a crime against humanity. Yet regrettably, slavery has not been eradicated but continues with impunity, in many parts of the world. The modern movement to abolish slavery began over 300 years ago, but today more than 27 million men, women and children still live in enslavement, or in slave-like conditions. They are trapped in forced labour and debt bondage, in domestic servitude and forced marriages, or exploited by human traffickers.

The first challenge in combating slavery must be to confront this bitter truth.

Individuals who are subject to modern forms of slavery and slave-like practices, by virtue of their enslaved status, lack access to information and justice. Enslavement goes hand in hand with conflict, poverty, social exclusion, lack of access to education, weak law enforcement and corruption. It is particularly related to discrimination and prejudice, on the basis of colour, ethnicity, national origin or caste. Communities that have been subjected to historical wrongs — such as Afro-descents and indigenous peoples — as well as those whose conditions make them easy prey for exploitation, such as the poor, asylum-seekers, refugees and irregular migrants, are also extremely vulnerable.

As a South African victim of Apartheid, I experienced first-hand, the pervasive impact of prejudice and exclusion and the badges of slavery. The struggle against these ills must be a part of our commemoration of the victims of past slavery. I urge governments to set up public awareness-raising campaigns that make clear the existence and elements of contemporary practices of slavery, working with international agencies and civil society organisations to plan and deliver these important and potentially life-saving messages.

Governments need to enact legislation that prohibits specific forms of slavery such as forced labour and child slavery, and provide for penalties commensurate to the crime, backed by resources that enable implementation of the law. The judiciary and law enforcement agencies must be sensitized to the importance of combating what may seem to some as a traditional practice.

There should also be provision for rehabilitation. As you know, the United Nations Voluntary Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery was established in 1991 by the General Assembly to extend direct assistance to victims of contemporary forms of slavery. It is an effective and concrete mechanism, managed by my Office, to assist the victims of contemporary forms of slavery to regain freedom and rebuild lives of dignity.

Since its creation, the Fund has provided support to tens of thousands of victims through more than 500 projects. They include victims of human trafficking for sexual exploitation and domestic servitude, children who have been exploited in mines and plantations and young girls who are victims of forced marriage.

The Fund has supported emergency shelters, the delivery of humanitarian support and vocational training, as well as the provision of legal, medical and psychological aid to victims.

One of the best ways to honour victims of past slavery is to contribute funds to the Trust so that current victims of slavery can be assisted to get out of slavery.
Perhaps no homage to the victims of past slavery could be as powerful as support for them, and for the elimination of slavery in the present.

Ladies and gentlemen, today's commemoration coincides with the United Nations' preparations for the Decade for People of African Descent, 2013-2022. I call on your governments, civil society organizations and public and private partners to continue launching and implementing initiatives aiming at addressing the consequences of slavery and the slave trade, as well as honouring and restoring the dignity of people of African descent, and I urge them to redouble their efforts to eliminate racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.

Thank you.